Will the groundswell of opinion against rampant corruption and poor governance that has built up across India, particularly among young people in their 20s and 30s ago, prove to be a turning point for the way the country is run?
That groundswell, verging on anger with corrupt politicians and other officials, led to mass protests two weeks ago in support of a hunger strike by veteran social activist Kisan Baburao “Anna” Hazare, and in support of proposed new anti-corruption Lok Pal (ombudsman) legislation.
The government caved in to Hazare’s demands that social activists should help draft the legislation. But government and opposition politicians, who are anxious to undermine his authority and popularity, are now sniping at him and his advisers, and allegations of unethical behaviour on land deals have been thrown at his two top lawyers, former law minister Shanti Bhushan and his son Prashant.
The attacks might prove to be shortsighted because Hazare (left) was simply the symbol of the country’s frustrations – the main demand of the crowds who gathered in cities across the country was for corruption at all levels of daily life to be curbed.
In the almost three decades that I have known this country, there have been two major turning points. One was the new young approach triggered by Rajiv Gandhi when he became prime minister in 1984: he was not immediately successful, but he paved the way for later change. The other was in 1991 when prime minister Narasimha Rao authorised his finance minister Manmohan Singh and commerce minister Palaniappan Chidambaram to unleash and reform the country’s shackled economy.
Those changes made the 2000’s a decade of “yes we can” (to quote Barak Obama’s election mantra), as Indian businessmen and others discovered they could become world-class successes. Sadly, at the same time, politicians, bureaucrats and others realised that their “yes we can” was an ability to escalate graft, fraud and extortion to such an extent that corruption has pervaded every area of society, and bad governance has thrived.
I have often listed recent examples of corruption on this blog, and here are two more from the past few days – through the voices of a former senior bureaucrat and a newspaper editor about corrupt links between government and industry, and the media.
There’s also been some progress in the law courts where five top executives from telecom companies have been refused bail and sent to jail pending trial of cases in the big 2G licences and spectrum scandal.
In a new book, The Darker Side of Black Money that is being published this week, a former director general of the government’s Economic Intelligence Bureau, B V Kumar, says that most business houses “maintain” MPs to influence government policies or decision making. “Some of the large industrial houses also fund politicians who are in the Opposition as a hedge to ensure that any decision that may be given in their favour is not opposed by them. They also treat such funding as a long term investment”.
This is of course not a surprise to people close to the way that the government and big companies work, but it is remarkable coming from such a retired official. Nor is this next statement surprising, though again it is significant because it comes from Sanjaya Baru, an economist who has been a spokesman and close adviser to prime minister Manmohan Singh and is now editor of the Business Standard daily.
Delivering a memorial lecture on Media, Business and Government in Delhi on April 17, Baru said that there are “growing links between politicians, political parties and the media and entertainment business” nationally and in individual states.
In Tamil Nadu, the ruling DMK party (which is at the centre of the current multi-million dollar telecom scandal) “dominates print, tv and film production and distribution” through companies controlled by the party’s main political family. Baru added that the same had happened with the family of a former Congress Party chief minister in Andhra Pradesh, where the main opposition party also had similar media interests. In Maharashtra, the family of agriculture minister Sharad Pawar had also “acquired substantial stakes in media and entertainment”.
These media and other investments by the regional politicians will of course have been made with money raised through bribes and extortion. The politicians are then protected from criticism about the way they behave in newspaper, tv and other media outlets that they own, and they and their families reap both the financial and political benefits.
Businessmen join protests
Many people I have talked to in the past two weeks believe that such self-serving politicians have to go. How fast that will happen, no one has any idea. Top businessmen, who went without being noticed to Hazare’s Jantar Mantar protest, talk now of maybe going in a group if there is a repeat event some time in the future.
They know of course that Hazare, and the Lok Pal legislation which is aimed at catching corrupt officials, will not be anywhere near sufficient to address something that has eaten into the lives of hundreds of millions of people – including those who joined the recent protests. An article in the current issue of Outlook magazine questions the hypocrisy when corruption is so pervasive. “Do we, the Indian middle class, see the corruption within us?”, it asks, wondering whether the protesting students “want to look closely at how dad can afford to send them to business school abroad?”
So could the Hazare movement trigger a third moment of change in India? The need is certainly there, as it was when Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister and when the 1991 reforms were announced. But such an event needs a leader able to tackle such deeply entrenched social and political habits and attitudes – maybe a high profile leader like Rajiv Gandhi (though he lacked experience), or someone more behind-the-scenes but powerful and adept like Narasimha Rao.
India however has no national politician capable or willing to break the mould and introduce the governmental, legal and attitudinal reforms that are needed.
Manmohan Singh is too hemmed in by his coalition and the dominant role of Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress Party and of the coalition, to take the initiative.
Sonia Gandhi herself (right, celebrating India’s cricket World Cup win) is not taking a lead and her son, 40-year old Rahul who is widely assumed to be a future prime minister, is showing no signs of wanting to move into an accountable political role. Indeed, he underlined how he likes working in a low-key way as a Congress Party general secretary when he said last week, in reply to provocation from a retired senior judge, that “becoming a hero….is of absolutely no interest to me” – ignoring the point that the country needs a leader not a hero.
So it is Hazare, and not a politician, who has stepped into the role of a catalyst for change. That is upsetting many political leaders and others who are now trying, with public statements and allegations of unethical behaviour, to undermine his popularity and the reputations of the social activists’ Lok Pal Bill drafting team.
Some of the criticisms are understandable, especially concern that India’s democratic system, however faulty, should not be challenged or undermined by unelected unaccountable social activists such as Hazare, several of whose close supporters have their own political agendas and probably see him as a malleable route to power and influence.
But what the tens of thousands of people who staged the protests two weeks ago want is change, not squabbling. There is a chance here for Manmohan Singh to step out of the Gandhi shadow and assert himself as a leader, or for Rahul Gandhi to show he has a true successor to his late father’s reforming zeal. If nothing is done, 2011 might go down in history as the year that politicians failed the country and allowed non-democratic forces to grow.